The mystery of “All Along the Watchtower”

“There must be some way out of here,” said the joker to the thief
“There’s too much confusion, I can’t get no relief
Businessmen, they drink my wine, plowmen dig my earth
None of them along the line know what any of it is worth”

“No reason to get excited,” the thief, he kindly spoke
“There are many here among us who feel that life is but a joke
But you and I, we’ve been through that, and this is not our fate
So let us not talk falsely now, the hour is getting late”

All along the watchtower, princes kept the view
While all the women came and went, barefoot servants, too

Outside in the distance a wildcat did growl
Two riders were approaching, the wind began to howl

(c) Bob Dylan

Bob Dylan’s “All Along the Watchtower” has only 12 lines and 130 words. And yet there are some novels with less storyline and meaning than this two and a half minute song. The song is a powerful and captivating mystery.

I don’t even dare to try to explain the mystery of this song. Nobody can. This song is as mysterious as Bob Dylan himself.

I simply state it is a mystery. The need for a mystery is greater than the need for an answer. I am not looking for an answer. I want to tell the story of the mystery as I see it and maybe create even more mystery.

Let’s talk about the song first. It is framed as a conversation between two archetypes: a joker and a thief.

The joker speaks first saying, “There must be some way out of here”. With that we realize that the travelers are looking the way “out of here” but we don’t really know where “here” is.

Then he complains that “there’s too much confusion, I can’t get no relief”. He explains the reason for his frustration which is “businessmen, they drink my wine, plowmen dig my earth”. And it looks like he feels sorry for them but with some contempt because “none of them along the line know what any of it is worth”.

In a way it feels something like a father discovering that his children built a fort in his library out of his books. The poor kids don’t yet have a concept of what books are for. For them the books are just mere bricks to build a toy fort. The father is upset but he understands that his children are simply ignorant in damaging books in his library, they just wanted to play.

The thief responds with empathy and understanding saying “no reason to get excited”. But then he utters something profound and on another level: “there are many here among us who feel that life is but a joke”, meaning, stop acting childish yourself, get your stuff together, and grow up. And he reminds the joker that “you and I, we’ve been through that, and this is not our fate”.

It feels like they had this conversation before and the thief is a bit annoyed trying once again to bring the joker to his senses. “So let us not talk falsely now”, he says.

The conversation ends with “the hour is getting late.” It appears that they are about to embark on something important which at the same time feels pretty mundane, like they are getting late for work.

After that the scenery changes dramatically. We are brought to some kind of castle where “all along the watchtower, princes kept the view”. The details are sparse but we are getting an idea that while the joker and the thief were riding and having their casual conversation, some kind of people with status, power and money are anxiously awaiting their arrival.

There is a lot of commotion: “all the women came and went, barefoot servants, too”. It feels like hopeless clatter in anticipation of inevitable reckoning.

Their fears are getting more pronounced as they hear “outside in the distance a wildcat did growl”. They see “two riders were approaching”. And then it happens and the terror begins: “the wind began to howl”. The song ends on these words. We don’t know what happens next. It’s a mystery.

There must be some way out of here said the joker to the thief 

There are many attempts to find meaning in the narrative of the song. The most obvious one is that it is similar to some passages from the Bible, specifically Book of Isaiah, Chapter 21. Indeed, there are references there to the watchtower, princes and two horsemen.

The common interpretation of Isaiah 21 is that it is a prophecy about the destruction of Babylon. The prophet has a vision of himself in Babylon. He sees the dreadful storm coming at a distance. Two hostile armies are approaching like a wind and they are threatening to destroy everything in their way. The ignorant princes of Babylon are feasting and partying when suddenly a watchman cries out that Babylon has fallen because he is terrified how rapidly the enemy was approaching and how inevitable the destruction looks. The prophecy meant to give the enslaved Jews assurance that Babylon would be destroyed and they would be delivered from bondage.

There were rumors that at the time of writing of the song Bob Dylan was constantly referring to the King James Bible. In one of the interviews his mother, Beatty Zimmerman, mentioned that “in his house in Woodstock there’s a huge Bible open on a stand in the middle of his study.”

But did Bob Dylan mean what Isaiah 21 meant? Or was he just struck by the mysterious beauty of the passage? Or maybe he just saw separate words that in his mind simply combined and flowed together into a song? Keep in mind that the reference to Isaiah 21 may account for only two lines in the song out of twelve. Where did the archetypes of a joker and a thief come from? And what is their conversation all about?

Late sixties was the time when the whole generation looked at Bob Dylan as a prophet, the role he utterly rejected. With this song he taunts his followers, saying, you want prophecy, okay, I’ll give you prophecy. But it comes with a price of mystery and entrapment. I’ll give you a prophecy the meaning of which will be forever out of your reach. You wanted a prophecy? Here it is.

Bob Dylan may be a reluctant prophet but his song is a true prophecy. A true prophecy is always a mystery. Every encounter with it creates its own meaning and interpretation for different people in different times.

There are many here among us who feel that life is but a joke

But let’s forget about prophecy for a moment. There is another polar opposite interpretation of the song which sees it as a personal empowerment manifest without endorsement of Christianity or any other religion.

There is a castle of psychological safety where stability of the social order reigns despite the dangers coming from outside (growling wildcats and howling winds). Only brave souls venture outside the safety of those walls. Inside the walls the truth is given to you and you don’t question it. That is the deal you accept. Outside the walls you are on your own, you have to seek your own way to find the truth and resolve the problem of meaninglessness of our existence in the face of inevitability of death.

Two travelers, the joker and the thief, are wandering outside the walls. They are seeking the truth. As they are slowly passing by we can overhear a part of their conversation. We realize that while the joker is weighted down by regrets and confusion of the past, the thief reminds him about revelations they already had and the destiny that awaits them ahead.

They reject the suffocating safety inside the walls. They are free and they accept the consequences of their actions. They are on their journey to unravel the constant conflict which is existence itself.

But wait, maybe the quest for meaning is too sophisticated to be true. There is another more simple and prosaic interpretation of the song. Just look at it through the prism of a twisted relationship between an artist and the money.

The joker is an artist, in this case Bob Dylan himself. He feels the urge to create art but at the same he sees that his gifts are misunderstood and misused: “businessmen, they drink my wine, plowmen dig my earth; none of them along the line know what any of it is worth”. He is hurt to witness his art becoming a commodity and bottled like Coca-Cola. He is trapped in a rat race of money making.

The thief is an artist manager, in this case Albert Grossman. His main goal is to milk the artist, to make more and more money each and every day. He quells the artist's complaints with words “you and I, we’ve been through that, and this is not our fate”. The thief, the manager, is tired of the artist whining and wants him to get back on stage: “so let us not talk falsely now, the hour is getting late”.

I can continue this exercise in creating even more intriguing interpretations of the song’s mystery. It would be fun but it will remain just a game. Mystery is always elusive, otherwise it is called certainty.

If you want to go crazy and indulge yourself in some conspiracy theories associated with the song, I have a couple of them for you just to get a taste how far down the rabbit hole we can go.

The song was released on December 27, 1967 in the album called “John Wesley Harding” which is supposed to reference an American Old West outlaw. The album itself and the title song have nothing to do with John Wesley Harding. As Dylan confessed in one of the interviews “I was gonna write a ballad on… like maybe one of those old cowboys… you know, a real long ballad. But in the middle of the second verse, I got tired.” Nevertheless some people found major religious significance in the character's initials JWH as Yahweh, one of the names of God in the Hebrew Bible. I guess this is a sign.

Another twist comes from the Beatles. Just a few months earlier, in May of 1967 they released their legendary album “Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band”. It was a sensation. It conveyed the psychedelic experience so effectively to listeners unfamiliar with hallucinogenic drugs that people felt high simply listening to the songs. The front cover of the album was a collage of people the Beatles deemed famous, including a picture of Bob Dylan.

Bob Dylan tried to position himself away from the psychedelic culture of the late sixties. And he had a rather one-way relationship with the Beatles when they admired him and in response he stayed cool. So, it seems like a joke when you look at the front cover of “John Wesley Harding” and see there four people, like the fabulous four of the Beatles. But in Dylan’s case it was total nonsense, the other three people had nothing to do with the album. There were two brothers, Indian musicians who happened to be around and a local stonemason who happened to walk by when the picture was taken.

And then the rumors started to circulate that the real faces of the Beatles and the hand of Jesus could be seen in the bark of the tree if you turn the picture upside down. Photographer himself was surprised by this revelation. How about that?

But jokes aside, let’s talk about the final mystery of “All Along the Watchtower” which is why the song became so famous. There are other songs in the album like "I Dreamed I Saw St. Augustine" or "The Ballad of Frankie Lee and Judas Priest". They are equally enigmatic and full of mystery. Yet nobody really knows them. But “All Along the Watchtower” stands above them as the most often performed of all of Dylan's songs.

For that we have to thank Jimmy Hendrix. He got the Dylan tapes just two months after he recorded them in Nashville studio. He loved the song and began recording his own version right away. It was released later in 1968 and became an instant hit.

Now when people are asked about “All Along the Watchtower” they say it is Jimmy Hendrix’s song. Bob Dylan himself was very impressed: “It overwhelmed me, really. He had such talent; he could find things inside a song and vigorously develop them. He found things that other people wouldn't think of finding in there. He probably improved upon it by the spaces he was using. "

The masterpiece had been created out of Hendrix’s electric guitar and Dylan’s poetry. The Hendrix’s driving guitar and bass chord progression repeated again and again locks the listener into a state of hypnotic trance. The Dylan’s lyrics, each line comprising two parts, beats like a pendulum metronome. It gives a feeling of riding the playground swing, back and forth.

The song can be played again and again, nonstop. It feels like a Moebius strip. You are trapped inside of its haunting loop. This is because the song actually starts in the middle of the narrative. The correct chronological way to begin the storyline would be with the words “all along the watchtower” and then continue with the conversation between the joker and the thief. So when the song ends it feels unfinished. But the end line “the wind began to howl” clicks like a magnet with the beginning line “there must be some way out of here” therefore creating an endless loop.

You can’t escape the mystery of cryptic prophecy of Bob Dylan’s “All Along the Watchtower”. It lures you in and when you think it ends it begins anew.